google vp8 fud

I don’t usually like chiming in on matters like this, but I’m going to say this time that I’m disappointed in Ars Technica’s recent FUD-provoking article on Google’s VP8 codec being open sourced.

Specifically, and I’m not picking on Ars in general, I notice in popular journalism a technique to claim that many people are supporting a view, but then to provide only *one* source that supports that view.  That doesn’t mean that many people support it … it means that at least one person does.

For example:

Some critics of VP8 contend that its design is sufficiently similar to H.264 to warrant concern. One such critic is Jason Garrett-Glaser, a software developer who works on x264, a well-known open source implementation of H.264. In a lengthy analysis of VP8, he attacks On2’s claim that the format is superior to H.264 and says that the format’s legal status is too dubious for companies to trust.”

There are no other references to “some critics” anywhere else in the article.

Again, here’s a second example:

MPEG LA’s threats at this stage appear to be little more than self-serving saber rattling, but others who have analyzed the technology seem to believe that there could be serious patent risks on the horizon.”

There is a reference earlier to MPEG LA’s own remarks, the original piece of which makes its own conclusions as well.

Looking at that piece, the whole article is based around *one* question that he shared:

He writes:

Here’s an excerpt from my email exchange with him:

JP: Let me ask you this: Are you creating a patent pool license for VP8 and WebM? Have you been approached about creating one?

Larry Horn: Yes, in view of the marketplace uncertainties regarding patent licensing needs for such technologies, there have been expressions of interest from the market urging us to facilitate formation of licenses that would address the market’s need for a convenient one-stop marketplace alternative to negotiating separate licenses with individual patent holders in accessing essential patent rights for VP8 as well as other codecs, and we are looking into the prospects of doing so.”

That’s the other thing I don’t like about journalism … I would call it a pet peeve, but really it’s just a matter of not being able to trust the reporting when all we get is excerpts.  His entire article is written around one excerpt of an email exhange.  Why don’t journalists ever post the entire exchange?  Lack of transparency, to me, just gives the impression that they are trying to present a biased view.

I realize, of course, that in only including excerpts here that I’m doing the same thing in a sense, but at least I’m providing references to the full sources I have available so that anyone else can do their own analysis and come to their own conclusion.

If you wanted to see his own conclusions, just read the article.  First of all, the headline is: “Google’s “Royalty-Free” WebM Video May Not Be Royalty-Free for Long”.  There’s no way to draw that conclusion from the article.

I wonder if the editors come up with the titles of the articles themselves.  It  could easily have said “MPEG LA may create a patent pool for VP8”, and that would be more accurate.  Compare that possible title to the other one when reading the author’s assumption after the excerpt:

“It would seem, then, that VP8 may end up subject to the same licensing issues as H.264. If MPEG LA does create a patent pool license for the standard, the free lunch Google promised yesterday may not be free after all.”

That’s an obvious conclusion, and I could come to the same one as well — If this, then that.

We can see again, even in this article, that he uses the same tactic of using one source and pretending it’s many:

“As a number of observers have already noted VP8 isn’t free from patent liability.”

Again, it’s not a number of observers … it’s one blog post … the same one that Ars referenced as well!  Jason is a great multimedia dev, but he’s not a patent lawyer last I checked.  I’d be equally bothered if someone took my opinion, on any piece of my blog, and quoted me as the expert who knows which way the industry in Linux is going to go, or what legal battles it has to deal with in the future.

My take on the whole thing is this — first of all, I thought Jason’s original piece was very well written, and it was exactly what he set it out to be: a technical write-up of the codec.  He made some comments in passing about patents, but the focus of his post was how VP8 is better than Theora, not as good as x264 (and I would agree).  I would imagine that the poor guy didn’t expect his blog post to get as much attention as it did, and that it will probably affect future blog posts, if any.

My opinion on the MPEG LA stance, reading just the excerpt above — and not the author’s own conclusion — is that their business stance is completely normal and reasonable.  The way I read it is not that MPEG LA is claiming anything, but that some other companies might be wanting their own assurances of patent protection, and looking to their company to make sure they have their licensing ducks in a row.  That could be it, maybe not.  Either way, we don’t have any information from them to really speculate.

Personally, I’m not too worried about the whole thing.  I think VP8 will emerge just fine, there may be *some* licensing involved somewhere, but in the end, open source tools will go on just like it has for years and support the standards, and consumers will still win out with more options.

As far as journalism goes, I think we’re going to see more FUD pieces about the whole thing.  It’s a common tactic used by big bullies (anyone remember SCO?).  I’m not saying the concerns are illegitimate, but I sure wish people would use critical thinking and analysis when writing their articles, instead of trying to spin up hype and paranoia for .. whatever reasons they may have.

It’s obvious that my attitude is that modern journalism has completely lost its credibility, and that’s the reason I don’t like writing about it — is because I get into rant mode. And I apologize for that.  Also, sorry that the post kinda bounces back and forth between my points … it’s the nature of a rant, I suppose. 🙂

One last comment (this is one of those posts that has the misfortune of never ending), that I wanna make sure I clarify is that it’s not my intention to disprove, stir controversy or anything like that … my only goal is to encourage critical thinking which seems to be a missing element in reporting these days.  I’m personally tired of how research becomes whittled down to conclusions.  It’s like statistics — you can often make the numbers say anything you want.  But, yah, not trying to hand out pitchforks or anything, I just think it’s a good idea to be honest in reporting, present the facts, and let people come to their own conclusions.  That’s all. 🙂  Have a donut.

9 comments on “google vp8 fud

  1. velda

    I’m fine with people expressing their own opinions so long as they paint them as just that, and not try to imply there’s some collective backing them up. This happens _all the time_ though. And I’m guessing these unsupported assertions are just meant to rile people up, because whether they’re for or against the opinions expressed, I’m supposing people get addicted to that feeling of being constantly upset (particularly over things they can’t help), and they come back for more. And they see ads while they’re there. 😐

  2. Ivan Lazar Miljenovic

    A very nice writeup; I had the same peeve when I read the article at Ars, etc. Everyone (including Steve Jobs) who is saying that WebM is bad/has patent problems is just linking/referencing Jason’s blog post.

    Oh, and where’s this mysterious donut? :p

  3. klon

    Actually, it’s not journalism, but only bad and populist journalism you are dissapointed in. Believe me, I’m a journalist myself and for me, such articles as quoted by you are disgrace for journalism too 😉

  4. bob

    a classic
    however few are the people who will realize, and few are the ones reading your blog (no offense here of course)
    such things happen every day.. what am i saying, every hour in every kind of media.

  5. Dann

    What irked me most about that article was that all the evidence MPEG LA cited in their argument was based on the opinions and research of MPEG LA. I did not see one iota of independent research or counter-arguments.

    They are scratching their own back and calling it valid.
    And they’re angsty because someone is intruding on their turf providing a cheaper alternative. Grr.


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